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Films of the Sensory Ethnography Lab
Paul Henley

This chapter considers the work of the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), established at Harvard University in 2006 and which has had a dramatic impact both inside and beyond the academy. Initially, the institutional context and the ideas informing the work of the SEL are described. This work is very diverse and constantly innovative, making generalisation perilous. But allowing for numerous possible exceptions, it is suggested that there are various continuities between their praxis and that of their institutional predecessor, Robert Gardner. These are particularly evident in the attention given to visual aesthetics and to sound editing, and in the generally high technical quality of their films. Also as in Gardner’s work, both language and concern for communicating what the subjects think or feel about the world are of secondary importance. There is typically even less interest in relating those beliefs or sentiments to social relations, politics or culture. It is argued that in these regards their work, collectively, is set upon a trajectory carrying them progressively away from the conception of ethnography on which this book is based. These propositions are then explored in relation to some of the best-known works produced by the SEL prior to 2015.

in Beyond observation
Paul Henley

The five projects discussed in this final chapter were all carried out on the basis of a participatory film-making praxis and in the course of extended immersive ethnographic fieldwork. As such, they are offered as a range of possible models for future ethnographic film-making. The first project concerns a series of films made for a cultural mapping project aimed at establishing the land rights of a displaced San people in South Africa. The second consists of a Rouchian ethnofiction made in collaboration with transgendered people in São Paulo, Brazil. In the third case, which consists of a film about the relationship between the living and the dead in a Melanesian community, the film is constructed around the relationship between the subjects and the ethnographer, who appears on screen. The fourth case consists of a series of films about women’s lives among the Hamar people of Ethiopia. Although in this case the ethnographer does not appear on screen, these films too are clearly dependent on her relationship with the subjects over thirty years. In the final case, the ethnographer presents himself as an apprentice, sitting both literally and metaphorically at the feet of a West African master hunter.

in Beyond observation